It is curious that there is no Nobel Prize for the most ancient of all human arts, the art of music. True, Bob Dylan did get one, the first musician so honored, but that was not for his music, but for his words.
A recent study from the University of Ohio showed that over the past 30 years, the intros to pop songs have shrunk in length by about three quarters, from an average of 20 seconds to 5, in order to keep people from clicking through. Clearly, the lyrics have become more important to modern listeners than the music underneath them.
And indeed, in many recent songs, the music is reduced to its bare foundation, the beat.
The beat is what makes music out of a sequence of sounds, because it corresponds to the heartbeat. The heartbeat in turn corresponds to our mood, generally from 60 beats a minute when at rest to 100 when excited. It is a feedback loop: the beat sets the mood, but the mood also sets the beat.
The heartbeat is not just a simple beat like a clock. It consists primarily of two pulses, the systole when it contracts and the diastole when it relaxes. The systole is a short, strong pulse, the diastole a longer, softer one. When two or more pulses combine, they form a rhythm. The rhythm of the heart is like the rhythm of the blues which explains the lasting appeal of that genre.
Since the heart has four chambers, each with its own cycle, its rhythm is in fact more subtle. Rhythms reflecting this underlying complexity affect the listener in correspondingly subtle ways which cannot be explained rationally, as I found out at the Pascua Yaqui Deer Dance this past Easter.
Like Easter, the Deer Dance is about renewal and revitalization. The rhythms produced by the drums, the ankle bells of the dancers and the gourds of the deer dancer himself are incredibly tight. One senses that the performers are connected by more than just diligent practice, that their connection is the product of thousands of years of history.
It worked the way it was intended on me. In response to this sonic massage, my heart became light again. I felt like I had a new skin, having shed the old one in the dust of Old Pascua. I cannot explain this rationally; it was truly magical.
We no longer believe in magic in this day and age. Magic is for children. As adults, we have come to rely completely on the rationality of science, the understanding of cause and effect which has given us such tremendous power over our environment. But science has reached a point where it has to admit that there are things which cannot be put into words or numbers, but are nonetheless real.
The analytical scientific approach demands that we stop things to have a good look at them, to pry them apart and see what’s inside. A butterfly pinned to a piece of velvet, however, is not really a butterfly anymore – it is just the shell of a butterfly. The content, the life – which is what we ultimately want to understand – is no longer present.
Powerful as it is, science is inherently incapable of describing life, because of the conundrum that it cannot describe motion and position simultaneously. It can certainly describe the elements of life, but life is a whole greater than the sum of its parts. To get a grip on the negative effects of the opulence science has given us, the pollution, the waste, the degradation of our natural environment, we need to bridge the difference with the irrational perspective, the perspective of the deer dancer and of the butterfly in flight.
Curiously, there is currently a trend to discredit science the same way as magic was discredited before. Some of our leaders seem to think that silencing the voice of science will circumvent the massive problems it predicts as a consequence of its own success. That is certainly not the kind of irrationality called for. We need the magical kind to complement the rationality of science in order to reach a deeper understanding of our world and ourselves.
To draw attention to this development, the March for Science will take place on Earth Day, April 22, in hundreds of cities all around the globe and Tucson is one of them. Tucson’s March for Science will start at El Presidio Park at 10 am and end there at 2 am. The march is organized by the Earth Day Network. You can find out more about the march and its objectives on their site at www.earthday.org as well as at www.marchforscience.com.